Graphic Courtesy of DRB reader Cole
How quickly things change, last Tuesday morning the Rays' following were awaiting the debut of Andrew Sonnanstine, that would come to pass, and after he was removed the bullpen imploded. Action was called for, and quickly muted as the much maligned relief staff strung together seven scoreless innings over the pair of series winning victories. To south Florida the team went, and again the first game of the series looked to be in the Rays' grasp, only to see Florida play catch up, and leave a red substance, although not ketchup in the water in regards to the pen.
Here we sit, Tuesday morning, `one week later'. The mood is no longer atrabilious, dire measures need not be taken. Jay Witasick is a nice veteran add, and will suffice as well as nearly any reliever from this past November could've, but what we're seeing with newly promoted Jason Hammel, J.P. Howell, Andrew Sonnanstine, and the remaining original Durham Bulls rotation; Jeff Niemann and Mitch Talbot, is much more keen to this organization. Despite the blowups, in spite of the numbers, and ignoring the fact that the Rays could potentially be in second right now, rather than two games out, is the fact that this ownership and management have sustained the `plan' that was put in place on that November day 19 months ago.
Rushing players, especially pitchers, won't be tolerated nor practiced. After practicing a slightly more reckless approach for nearly the last decade, it's a breath of fresh air. Think back to the countless amount of pitchers potentially rushed through the system who ended up busting, Brazelton, Gaudin although he's showing his abilities for Oakland now, and even Scott Kazmir. All reached the majors with some issues that they needed, and in Kazmir's case, still need to work on. Keeping the `Durham Five' in the minors for two months wasn't the popular choice, it wasn't even the productive choice, on the surface, but in the end it was the right choice.
Innings are something no amount of talent can speak for. Using Kazmir as the example he threw 228 innings before reaching the Rays in 2004, none at the AAA level. By comparison James Shields threw 554 minor league innings. Andy Sonnanstine endured more than 424 very successful innings, Edwin Jackson was nearly at 300 innings before his first taste of the show. J.P. Howell got the added incentive of throwing more than 200 college innings to go with his 200 minor league innings before being a full-time starter this season. Note the parallel in performances due to minor league innings pitched. Obviously it's far too soon to judge Sonnanstine or Howell's major league performances, but Shields is the poster boy for throwing a lot of minor league innings, and quickly becoming a force at the major league level.
I'm not suggesting that there's some imaginary line of pre-majors innings that separate `good' pitchers from `great' pitchers, but Greg Maddux threw around 500 innings before being a Cub, as did Glavine, on the other hand Roger Clemens only threw a handful over 100 before Boston called upon his services. There are no guarantees that the more innings thrown at the lower levels will prevent arm injuries later on, although mechanics and repetition are such keys to a healthy, successful pitcher that perhaps there is more than a loose correlation in the numbers.
Being in the minors also conveys an opportunity to `work on things' as even our own Andrew Friedman has stated. Many interpretations can be taken from `work on things' although I think the most reached conclusion is either development of another pitch, or progression of mechanics. Instincts are born, and cannot be taught.
One would be correct in saying the Rays have very few legitimate `closer' prospects at the moment. Greg Dupas of Vero Beach and Ryan Reid of Columbus stick out as the main two, heck Jean Machi was allowed to leave after a very good season with Montgomery last season. It would seem as if the Rays are building a future pen, and closer, the `old fashioned' way. Since most all relievers are just failed starters, why not let them start throughout the minor leagues, build innings, produce results, eliminate the errors, and thus build a successful, seasoned pitcher, such was the case with Billy Wagner, who started 73 games at the minor league level, and to this day has never trotted out for the first inning in his major league career. Same with Mariano Rivera, although he had 10 MLB starts to go along with 68 minor league starts, he also had a 5 ERA until that darn closing thing got in the way.
There are times, of course, when an ultra-conservative manner should be avoided. My main example for this being Jake McGee, Wade Davis, and the Columbus `crew'. McGee and Davis are still quite young, and will still be young for AA next season, but there's no reason to delay the maturing process just for the sake of doing so. Both are clearly above the talent level opposing them in high A ball, perhaps above the AA talent, at least on some nights. Wade Davis faced a rehabbing Joe Mauer last week, and for Mauer's troubles he was left with a 0-3 night.
Perhaps the bigger of my peeves is the Catfish staff. The problem lies particularly with three of the starters; Wade Townsend, Joshua Butler, Heath Rollins, along with reliever Brian Baker. Townsend and Baker are 24, and have ERA's and peripherals that justify a promotion. Even more so Townsend was a first round draft pick, twice, there should be no reason that he could be 25 before reaching AA, he's been injured before, true, but at this point if the Rays want to see production for their patience he's going to have to be bumped slightly quicker than others. Rollins and Butler are both 22, and again are dominating low A, like college draftees should. Both should be moved to Vero Beach's rotation, while the previously mentioned Vero Beach starters; McGee and Davis, along with someone else in that rotation to take James Houser spot, are promoted to Montgomery.
Just like that three rotation slots change, and notice that those three promoted starters to Montgomery would be in line to take the three slots left behind by Sonnanstine, Howell, and Hammel. At this point the arms race is on for the Rays, while we shouldn't sacrifice minor league innings just for the sake of doing so, it's time to promote a few deserving and older pitchers, challenging them, and making room for the exponentially large crop of new arms.
Things coming in threes seem like something larger than a coincidence, major league promotions, and potential rotation replacements at three levels, let's just hope that third `three' item isn't another bullpen disaster.